A Silicon Valley CEO's Words Can't Hurt the Poor, But Government Can Help Them

Dec 18, 2013Nell Abernathy

Greg Gopman's callous comments about San Francisco's homeless demonstrate why we need government to support the most vulnerable Americans.

So yet another Silicon Valley innovator is in trouble for publicly ranting about the horrifying experience of having to share San Francisco’s streets with our nation’s tired, poor, and huddled masses. Last week, AngelHack CEO Greg Gopman wondered why San Francisco’s homeless have the temerity to wander into civilized parts of the city. He wrote on his Facebook page, “You can preach compassion, equality, and be the biggest lover in the world, but there is an area of town for degenerates and an area of town for the working class. There is nothing positive gained from having them so close to us. It's a burden and a liability having them so close to us.”

The Internet went into a full-throttle shame-fest and forced Gopman to apologize on his Facebook page. Maybe I am jaded, but my indignation is a little less acute than some. Mostly, I don’t find arrogance and corruption on the part of industry leaders to be very novel. (To be fair, I’m not much surprised by arrogance and corruption on the part of think tank academics, non-profit do-gooders, or politicians either.)

Don’t econ textbooks tell us that our world is one comprised of individuals maximizing their own best interest? Why should any of us be surprised that techie X’s interest is to avoid homeless people or that banker Z’s interest is to get a really big bonus? While I vehemently oppose Gopman’s sentiments, I know that I am more likely to spend Wednesday night on my couch watching Nashville than working in a soup kitchen, so, you know, glass house and stones and all.

What this whole incident does underscore is the absolute need for a public sphere where we join together in service of something larger than our own petty interests. Through our government we can choose to live in a city and state and country where we are guided by more than our most self-serving of instincts. This is what so much of American anti-government rhetoric misses. The rules we choose to codify as “government” do not need to proscribe our freedom; rather, they can free us from the constraints of Lord of the Flies-like living.

This is a debate that could bring us back to Locke and Hobbes and even get us speaking in Greek, so instead I’ll stick to a few points.

1) Mr. Gopman is not unique in his dismissal of poverty in his neighborhood. Americans have demonstrated a remarkable ability to dismiss poverty in our country. Of the world’s top 35 richest countries, the U.S. is second only to Romania in child poverty. And just last week, Andrea Elliot at the New York Times put a face to the grim statistics with her meticulously reported series “Invisible Child.”

2) The belief that visionary entrepreneurs or privately funded non-profits can reduce poverty has not produced tangible evidence of success. The optimism from Silicon Valley that technology can save the world is perhaps best encapsulated by George Packer’s July New Yorker piece on the tech community’s political culture and Dave Eggers’ dystopian novel The Circle. We hear the same argument from Wall Street about the value of accessible capital; who can forget when Lloyd Blankfein claimed to be “doing God’s work”?  Indeed, finance and technology are powerful tools to improve lives, but who uses them and how they are used are important questions.

Keep in mind that despite the enormous increases in technology capacity and availability of credit, the official U.S. poverty rate has shifted from 14 percent in 1964 to 15 percent in 2012.  A new Columbia University study released last week measured American poverty according to location and transfers, and found the poverty rate in fact dropped from 26 percent in 1967 to 16 percent in 2012.  How did this drop occur? The researchers attributed the gains largely to government transfers.

3) The third false idea so often repeated is that the government cannot effectively do anything to help people. And as much as I wish the Department of Health and Human Services had turned to Mr. Gopman and his friends to build Healthcare.gov, I’m not ready to turn my back on government’s efficacy at tackling any or all public goals.

Let’s think of a few things that government has done that Mr. Gopman and the Silicon Valley crowd might appreciate. There’s the taxpayer-funded state college he attended, the government roads he drives on, the big bridges he probably crosses to get in and out of San Francisco, the public safety services he relies on to keep him from being mugged, the legal system he most likely employs to protect his company, and the cheap loans he may have benefited from thanks to remarkably low interest rates and inflation.

But let’s ignore all that and just focus on his bread and butter, technological innovation, which, Mr. Gopman and his friends may be surprised to learn, has been driven largely by government-funded research in basic science. Take the iPhone, for example. It took the genius of Steve Jobs to imagine and design the product, but it also took decades of government research to develop the components an iPhone needs to function. In a recent book, The Entreprenuerial State, Mariana Mazzucato traces the iPhone's roots to the defense researchers who developed the Internet, GPS, and the voice activation programs that served as Siri’s prototype. Public universities and labs funded by government dollars developed HTML and touch screens. Before going public, Apple even benefited from a $500,000 loan from the federal government’s Small Business Administration.

And for those who believe the private sector could have done it better, perhaps you will take the word of the American Energy Innovation Council, led by Bill Gates and Jeff Immelt. “When firms make investments in basic science or R&D, they create knowledge spillovers that benefit society as a whole, as well as other firms. Those other firms get a free ride on their competitors’ R&D investment. Because it is difficult for any individual firm to monetize all the benefits of these types of investments, the private sector has tended to systematically under-invest in R&D relative to the potential gains to society — even where a market for the desired technology exists.”

There is a time and a place for rugged individualism.  But I am grateful that I am dependent neither on the good will of Mr. Gopman nor the good will of any other rational self-interested individual for the common services I consume. Rather, I am relieved to rely on the good will of the public, that amorphous body in which we can all project our ambitions for a world more just and more free than one guided by the anarchy of our impulses.

Nell Abernathy is the Project Manager for the Roosevelt Institute's Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative.


Golden Gate Bridge image via Shutterstock.com 

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